What are the prospects for Poland’s President Andrzej Duda?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s right-wing President remains the country’s most popular politician largely because Poles approve of his style rather than any substantive policy achievements. But his presidency lacks a clear defining concept and is driven by the, sometimes conflicting, aims of trying to provide balance to the political scene while remaining loyal to the ruling party’s governing programme.

Independent actor or ineffective ‘notary’?

Although Polish President Andrzej Duda – who was elected in May 2015 as candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, currently Poland’s ruling party – has political ambitions that transcend his constitutional position, he has struggled to carve out an independent role for himself. Poland has a predominantly parliamentary system but the presidency is not purely ceremonial and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers; most significantly a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to overturn, which the current government lacks.

However, Mr Duda got off to a problematic start when, almost immediately after Law and Justice took office in November 2015, he was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising dispute over the membership of the country’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five tribunal judges elected to the 15-member body by the previous parliament who, it argued, were not nominated legally; a view strongly contested by the main opposition parties and most of Poland’s legal establishment. Mr Duda did not accept the judges’ oaths of office and subsequently swore in another five nominated by the new parliament. For many of his critics, these initial actions defined the nature of Mr Duda’s presidency as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’ who uncritically approved all of the government’s key decisions, however controversial.

The closest that Mr Duda has come to emerging as a fully autonomous political actor was in July 2017 when, in a dramatic and surprising move, he vetoed two flagship government laws overhauling the country’s supreme court and National Judicial Council (KRS), a body that selects judges and decides how the courts are run, which the opposition claimed were unconstitutional. However, the revised versions of the laws that Mr Duda proposed, and were approved by parliament last December, were actually very close to the government’s original proposals. The Judicial Council would still be dissolved and a majority of its new members nominated by parliament rather than judges’ organisations, but there was now a stronger guarantee that the election would be by a three-fifths rather than simple majority, forcing the ruling party to negotiate appointments with opposition deputies. Moreover, instead of all of the current supreme court judges having to stand down (except those re-instated by the President from a list approved by the justice minister) only those over the age of 65 would be obliged to retire with Mr Duda deciding if their term could be extended.

Even if one does not accept the argument that these amendments were purely cosmetic and simply aimed at expanding Mr Duda’s own powers, as the judicial reform debate wore on perceptions of the President’s role shifted so that he came across increasingly as taking the government’s side in the dispute rather than as an independent arbiter. Indeed, Mr Duda always backed the fundamental objectives of the government’s reforms, but simply felt that its original proposals went too far in expanding the powers of the justice minister in his capacity as chief prosecutor.

The judicial reform vetoes did not, therefore, blunt opposition criticisms of Mr Duda for failing to block controversial government initiatives, such as when, rather than vetoing the ‘anti-defamation law’ passed at the end of January, he referred it to the constitutional tribunal (in fact, virtually all opposition deputies either abstained or voted in favour of the law when it was debated in parliament). This law imposed fines and criminal penalties of up to three years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of falsely ascribing responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. It led to a huge diplomatic row with Israel and the USA, Poland’s key international ally, who claimed that the law could restrict public testimony by Holocaust survivors.

The President’s critics also argue that Mr Duda has been ineffective in carrying forward any independent political initiatives. This was exemplified by his proposal to hold a consultative referendum in November, to coincide with the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after 123 years of foreign rule, on possible amendments to the country’s Constitution. Mr Duda proposed 10 questions including: whether Poles wanted the retirement age, state benefits for families, and Poland’s place in the EU and NATO enshrined in the Constitution; and if the President should have greater powers, and the Constitution refer to the country’s Christian values and heritage. In the event, at the end of July the Law and Justice-dominated Senate – Poland’s second chamber, whose consent is required to hold referendums – rejected the President’s proposal by 30 votes to 10 with 52 abstentions. Most Law and Justice Senators abstained, criticising the proposed timing and fearing very low turnout could damage both the ruling party and President’s prestige.

Autonomous, loyal to the ruling party or both?

Mr Duda’s supporters point to the fact that the President has blocked high profile legislation that is important to the ruling party. In July 2007, in addition to the two judicial reform bills he vetoed a law extending the supervisory powers of regional audit chambers, which would have given the government greater oversight over Poland’s 16 regional authorities, all but one of which are currently controlled by opposition parties. Then, last March he refused to sign a government-sponsored ‘degradation law’ which provided a legal means to demote army officers who had ‘put Poland’s national interests in jeopardy’ when the country was under communist rule, on the grounds that there were no legal means for challenging these demotions

Only last month, Mr Duda refused to sign a Law and Justice bill simplifying Poland’s complex system of voting for European Parliament (EP) members. Under the new rules, voters would have elected at least three MEPs in each of the country’s 13 electoral districts; previous regulations did not allocate a fixed number which varied according to local turnout. Mr Duda argued that these amendments would further depress EP election turnout (already the second lowest level in the EU) and severely damage the principle of proportionality, marginalising political groupings such as the right-wing anti-establishment Kukiz’15 which is often seen as a presidential ally. Estimates suggested that the changes would have raised the effective threshold for representation from the current 5% to between 8-21% depending on the size of the electoral district and distribution of votes, which could have resulted in Poland’s 52 EP seats being shared out between the two largest parties: Law and Justice and the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping.

Mr Duda’s supporters also point to his apparent foreign and defence policy successes. Although foreign affairs lie within the government’s domain, the Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role, and he can exert influence through international visits and high-profile speeches. The President is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Mr Duda’s supporters claim that he played a key role in the July 2006 Warsaw NATO summit’s decision to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by deploying an international battalion on the country’s territory. Mr Duda also helped to secure the replacement of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, with whom he had clashed repeatedly, in January’s government reshuffle.

His supporters also argue that the government has implemented two of Mr Duda’s most important domestic policy pledges: the introduction of the extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families; and reversal of the previous Civic Platform government’s deeply unpopular pension reforms, which had increased the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men). However, the political credit for these reforms has gone mainly to the government while Mr Duda’s critics point out that he has failed to deliver on two of his other flagship promises: substantial increases in tax allowances, and help for foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish złoty.

In fact, Mr Duda is torn between two, sometimes conflicting, logics. On the one hand, he wants to be taken seriously as an important member of the governing camp’s leadership and consulted fully on its key strategic, programmatic and personnel decisions. At the same time, he feels instinctively uncomfortable about the idea of one political formation dominating the public sphere and sees his role as a pluralising and stabilising influence on Poland’s polarised political scene. More pragmatically, Mr Duda knows that to secure re-election in summer 2020 he cannot simply rely on the votes of the Law and Justice hard core and needs to reach out to the political centre.

On the other hand, Mr Duda broadly shares Law and Justice’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and agrees with much of its critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions. His disagreements are over how radical the reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. The President has also not shown any interest in sponsoring his own independent political formation and knows that he needs both Law and Justice’s organisational support base and its core, right-wing voters if he is to secure re-election. Moreover, it is also in the ruling party’s interests to re-assure more moderate, centrist voters that Mr Duda is using the presidency to check the government’s more radical measures, providing this does not impact negatively upon the core of its governing programme; which is why the opposition is so keen to portray him as simply a Law and Justice ‘notary’.

Popular but lacking a defining concept

Mr Duda’s initiatives can, therefore, often come across a series of confusing and contradictory short-term tactical manoeuvres rather than being part of a thought-through longer-term plan, and sometimes risk alienating core supporters while leaving doubters unconvinced. However, Mr Duda can clearly connect with ordinary Poles and makes great efforts to reach out to the often-forgotten parts of provincial Poland which constitute the Polish right’s core electoral base. He also has an ability to come across as ‘Presidential’, particularly when making set-piece speeches on major state occasions. Moreover, many Poles understand instinctively that the Constitution leaves the President with limited room for independent political manoeuvre and, therefore, judge him on his style rather than any specific policy achievements.

Consequently, Mr Duda remains extremely popular: an August survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that he enjoyed a 66% approval rating, the highest of any Polish politician, while 58% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his duties. Most polls also suggest that he would win re-election against hypothetical challengers, the most serious of which appears to be European Council President and former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk.

However, these ‘headline’ polls can be misleading, hiding more subtle, underlying negative trends; Mr Duda’s Civic Platform-backed predecessor Bronisław Komorowski enjoyed even higher approval ratings but still failed to secure re-election in 2015. Moreover, if (as currently appears unlikely, but still quite possible) the opposition wins the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2019, Mr Duda will find himself under relentless attack from a new government seeking to de-legitimise his presidency by accusing him of complicity in Law and Justice’s alleged violations of the Constitution. At that point, it could become more of a problem if Mr Duda still appears to lack a clear concept of what defines his presidency, especially if a serious challenger emerges around whom all the (still very substantial) anti-Law and Justice opposition can coalesce.

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